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From the Townsend Letter
May 2008

Health Risks & Environmental Issues
Where Have All the Honeybees Gone?
by Rose Marie Williams, MA

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In 2006, beekeepers began reporting massive die-offs and, more strangely, the complete disappearance of entire colonies of honeybees. Over the past 20 years, there have been serious bee losses due to mites, viruses, bacterial infections, and extreme weather conditions, but never on a scale experienced these past two years. Some beekeepers lost 50% of their bees, others 80%. A few beekeepers were devastated with 100% losses! Bee losses were not limited to this country, but were reported in other countries, as well.

Ordinarily, beekeeping is not front-page news. However,
The New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and Reuters news agencies, along with CNN, FOX News, National Public Radio, and the BBC, picked up a report released by the Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences in late January 2007 to alert beekeepers and growers about the current crisis. Such wide media coverage has helped raise public awareness about the disappearance of bees.1 Just as all this was happening, the animated BEE Movie began circulating throughout neighborhood theaters, raising awareness among the younger set on how important bees are to our society.

Most of us go about our business never giving a thought to bees, even though we are deeply indebted to the busy little pollinators for our very existence. Honeybees do a lot more than make honey and pollinate the flowers that beautify our gardens. They pollinate 90 different food crops (one-third of the food supply) and contribute approximately $15 billion annually to the national economy. Their importance to the food chain, human health, and wildlife survival is immeasurable.2

Bees play a major role in the world's food supply, pollinating most fruits, vegetables, and nuts. Some of the crops dependent on bee pollination include carrots, cucumbers, broccoli, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, pumpkins, squash, apples, pears, avocados, watermelons, cantaloupe, blueberries, raspberries, strawberries, cherries, citrus, and seed and nut crops. And to the chocolate lovers who are reading, guess who pollinates those cacao plants? Honeybees, of course. Peanuts, a legume, do not rely on bee pollination.3,4

Bee pollination is so crucial to the almond crop in California that it requires more than half of the 2.4 million commercial colonies in the Unites States. Severe bee decline of the past two decades has forced almond growers to import bees from Australia. What would happen to these crops if the Australian colonies begin to decline?3,5

Even meat eaters are indebted to bees for pollinating soy, a major food crop for meat animals. Cotton does not require bee pollination, but the yields are higher when bees visit the cotton fields. Cotton oil is an ingredient in many packaged and prepared snack foods, otherwise considered junk foods. Despite cotton oil being a major additive in food products, cotton is not classified as a food crop and receives many applications of very toxic pesticides that would not be permitted on food crops. Read labels carefully if you wish to avoid cotton oil. Bees visiting cotton fields are exposed to toxic pesticides.

Honeybees are not native to America. They were brought here by the colonists. Beekeeping and honey collection were a pastime prior to the establishment of sugar as a major world commodity. In the 1940s, there were approximately five million managed bee colonies in North America. Now there are just over two million.4,6

Through the ages, "bees were admired for their hard work and personal conduct, often referenced in sermons, literature, and daily discussions of the New England colonies," writes Tammy Horn in her book, Bees in America. She describes how bees were kept in mud tubes in ancient Egypt, appear in literature from Greco-Roman times through Colonial America, and how since the 1970s, bees have suffered from chemical pesticides.6

Bee Problems
Beekeepers have endured numerous setbacks over the past two decades as bees succumbed to a variety of problems. Aside from winter losses, the usual causes of death include varroa mites, hive beetles, wax moths, and American foulbrood (a bacterial disease rapidly becoming resistant to antibiotic treatment).2,7

During the winters of 1995/1996 and 2000/2001, mite-related colony deaths reached catastrophic proportions. In the northern states, colony losses averaged between 50% and 100% for many beekeepers. State and federal efforts have not succeeded in controlling the mite problem or the bee losses. On the contrary, just as other insects become resistant to pesticides, mites are developing resistance to toxic miticides, which are themselves harmful to bees, further weakening their immune systems and making it difficult to know which is the greater evil – mites or miticides – or if it is a combination of the two.7

John McDonald, a biologist and beekeeper from Pennsylvania, prefers to use formic acid pads, which kill the mites. Mites have shown no sign of developing resistance to formic acid since it was originally introduced 30 years ago. Besides being inexpensive and simple, proper application of the pads eliminates queen losses, drone infertility, and brood and hive mortality. Formic acid is the only treatment allowed in organic beekeeping.

Honeybees require a mix of pollens from a variety of plants for their nutrients. Hurricanes, drought, and excessive rain take a toll on forage plants that produce pollen the bees rely on for their own nourishment. Loss of habitat to housing developments and shopping malls and loss of variety to factory-farming monoculture further impedes their natural supply of wild forage. Colonies weakened by stressors, such as sickness and malnutrition, are the hardest hit. This brings to mind Pasteur's theory of disease being caused by an outside agent or germ vs. the theory of his contemporary and philosophical rival, Beauchamp, who believed the terrain (immune system) was of greater importance than the pathogen in disease development.

Small farms once relied upon local bees for pollination. As present-day commercial agriculture escalated, the demand for huge numbers of pollinators also escalated. Fewer commercial beekeepers now manage greater numbers of bee colonies and rent out their bees to commercial growers, trucking the bees around the country like migrant laborers to pollinate when and where they are needed. Such a lifestyle can stress out the hard-working little pollinators beyond their ability to fend off the usual culprits (mites, viruses, bacteria, climate problems), while raising the chances of infestation or the spread of infections.7,8

Africanized bees are compounding the problem as they begin to populate areas in the southeast where commercial beekeepers often winter their bees. The southeast has also been the major source of queen bees and packaged bees supplied to northern beekeepers to replace their winter losses, which have been increasing.7Africanized bees are more competitive than the traditional European bees. It is feared that if the aggressive traits transfer into the commercial bee population, the colonies will become less manageable and could possibly raise liability issues for beekeepers.8

The loss of bees affects beekeepers, the agricultural industry, and, ultimately, the consumer. That pretty much includes the entire population. This situation exemplifies the simple yet profound words of Chief Seattle who said, "Man did not create the web of life, but is merely one thread in it. Whatever we do to the web, we do to ourselves."

In 1923 Rudolf Steiner, founder of the Anthroposophic movement and the Waldorf School, foresaw the current honeybee problem predicting they would not survive the twentieth century if methods of beekeeping did not change. Steiner's lectures on bees are compiled in a book titled Bees (Anthroposophic Press).5

Florida, one of the nation's major beekeeping states, has begun to experience the consequences of honeybee losses to varroa mites, sometimes referred to as the vampires of honeybees. The mites travel in swarms and suck the bee's blood, weakening bee colonies.9 During a recent visit to south Florida, I encountered an organic grower who operates a magnificent farmer's market right on Hollywood Beach. He offers a huge selection of greens, fresh herbs, crucifers, and root vegetables, all grown on his farms in central Florida. I asked if he was experiencing any bee problems. He agreed there was definitely a shortage of honeybees and said that since he started raising his own bees, he's had no problems at all. He claimed his bees are happy to stay close to the farm and not wander off.

His bees probably think they're in Paradise – no toxic pesticides and a large variety of crops of many colors, textures, and flavors. I then asked if he knew of any farmers in his area who were having problems with bees. Among the organic growers with whom he is acquainted, he could not recall any of them reporting bee problems. It was very uplifting to hear his comments.

Coming in the next issue will be more details on the bee crisis: what the experts are –and are not – looking at. A third installment will review bee economics and what we can all do to help save the overworked underappreciated honeybees, lest we follow their demise.

Rose Marie Williams, MA
156 Sparkling Ridge Road
New Paltz, NY 12561

1. Penn. State Staff. Bees in crisis. Cooperative State Research Educ. & Ext. Services. Available at: Accessed January 28, 2008.

2. Hutaff M. Give bees a chance. The Simon, May 1, 2007. Available at: Accessed February 4, 2008.

3. Colony collapse disorder, vanishing bee. Available at: Accessed February 4, 2008.

4. Breakthrough on mystery of vanishing bees. Available at: Accessed January 28, 2008.

5. Hauk G. The Spikenard Farm honeybee sanctuary. LILIPOH. Spring 2007; 47 (12). Available at:

6. Herlster K. Review of Bees in America: How the Honeybee Shaped a Nation by Horn, T. LILIPOH. Spring 2007; 47 (12). Available at:

7. Calderone N. Bee colony collapse disorder. Cornell Univ. Entomology. Available at: Accessed February 4, 2008. (May 2008: Link bad. Try )

8. Revkin A. Bees dying: Is it a crisis or a phase? NY Times. July 17, 2007; F3.

9. Ponn J. Mite threatening bee population here, nationwide. High Springs Herald, December 13, 2007. Available at: Accessed January 28, 2008.

Health Risks & the Environment DVD (60 min.)
by Rose Marie Williams, President
Cancer Awareness Coalition, Inc.
P.O. Box 533
New Paltz, New York 12561
$20 (free postage within USA)

Check or money order payable to Cancer Awareness Coalition, Inc.
A candid discussion about environmental assaults vs. genes – ways to reduce toxic exposures around the home – corporate /government influence.

The CAC is a 501©(3) grassroots organization that strives to raise awareness about health risks to pesticides and other pollutants, encourage use of safer methods, and improve public health. DVD sales help support this mission.


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